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Lunch at the Gotham Cafe

Stephen King

  Lunch at the Gotham Cafe

  Stephen King

  Lunch at the Gotham Cafe

  One day I came home from the brokerage house where I worked and found a letter - more of a note, actually - from my wife on the dining room table. It said she was leaving me, that she needed some time alone, and that I would hear from her therapist. I sat on the chair at the kitchen end of the table, reading this communication over and over again, not able to believe it. The only clear thought I remember having in the next half hour or so was I didn’t even know you had a therapist, Diane.

  After a while I got up, went into the bedroom, and looked around. All her clothes were gone (except for a joke sweatshirt someone had given her, with the words RICH BLOND printed on the front in spangly stuff), and the room had a funny dislocated look, as if she had gone through it, looking for something. I checked my stuff to see if she’d taken anything. My hands felt cold and distant while I did this, as if they had been shot full of some numbing drug. As far as I could tell, everything that was supposed to be there was there. I hadn’t expected anything different, and yet the room had that funny look, as if she had pulled at it, the way she sometimes pulled on the ends of her hair when she felt exasperated.

  I went back to the dining room table (which was actually at one end of the living room; it was only a four-room apartment) and read the six sentences she’d left behind over again. It was the same but looking into the strangely rumpled bedroom and the half-empty closet had started me on the way to believing what it said. It was a chilly piece of work, that note. There was no ‘Love’ or ‘Good luck’ or even ‘Best’ at the bottom of it. ‘Take care of yourself’ was as warm as it got. Just below that she had scratched her name.

  Therapist. My eye kept going back to that word. Therapist. I supposed I should have been glad it wasn’t lawyer, but I wasn’t. You will hear from William Humboldt my therapist.

  ‘Heat from this, sweetiepie,’ I told the empty room, and squeezed my crotch. It didn’t sound rough and funny, as I’d hoped, and the face I saw in the mirror across the room was as pale as paper.

  I walked into the kitchen, poured myself a glass of orange juice, then knocked it onto the floor when I tried to pick it up. The juice sprayed onto the lower cabinets and the glass broke. I knew I would cut myself if I tried to pick up the glass - my hands were shaking - but I picked it up anyway, and I cut myself. Two places, neither deep. I kept thinking that it was a joke, then realizing it wasn’t. Diane wasn’t much of a joker. But the thing was, I hadn’t seen it coming. I didn’t have a clue. What therapist? When did she see him? What did she talk about? Well, I supposed I knew what she talked about - me. Probably stuff about how I never remembered to put the ring down again after I finished taking a leak, how I wanted oral sex a tiresome amount of the time (how much was tiresome? I didn’t know), how I didn’t take enough interest in her job at the publishing company. Another question: how could she talk about the most intimate aspects of her marriage to a man named ’William Humboldt? He sounded like he should be a physicist at CalTech, or maybe a back-bencher in the House of Lords.

  Then there was the Super Bonus Question: Why hadn’t I known something was up? How could I have .walked into it like Sonny Liston into Cassius Clay’s famous phantom uppercut? Was :it stupidity? Insensitivity? As the days passed and I thought about the last six or eight months of our two-year marriage, I decided it had been both.

  That night I called her folks in Pound Ridge and asked if Diane was there. ‘She is, and she doesn’t want to talk to you,’ her mother said. ‘Don’t call back.’ The phone went dead in my ear.

  Two days later I got a call at work from the famous William Humboldt. After ascertaining that he was indeed speaking to Steven Davis, he promptly began calling me Steve. You may find that a trifle hard to believe, but it is nevertheless exactly what happened. Humboldt’s voice was soft, small, and intimate. It made me think of a car purring on a silk pillow.

  When I asked after Diane, Humboldt told me that she was doing as well as expected,’ and when I asked if I could talk to her, he said he believed that would be ‘counterproductive to her case at: this time.’ Then, even more unbelievably (to my mind, at least) he asked in a grotesquely solicitous voice how I was doing.

  I'm in the pink,’ I said. I was sitting at my desk with my head down and my left hand curled around my forehead. My eyes were shut so I wouldn’t have to look into the bright gray socket of my computer screen. I’d been crying a lot, and my eyes felt like they were full of sand. ‘Mr Humboldt ... it is mister, I take it, and -not doctor?’

  ‘I use mister, although I have degrees-‘

  ‘Mr Humboldt, if Diane doesn’t want to come home and doesn’t want to talk to me, what does she want? Why did you call me?’

  ‘Diane would like access to the safe deposit box,’ he said in his mooch, purry little voice. ‘Your joint safe deposit box.’

  I suddenly understood the punched, rumpled look of the bedroom and felt the first bright stirrings of anger. She had been looking for the key to the box, of course. She hadn’t been interested in my little collection of pre-World War II silver dollars or the onyx pinkie ring she’d bought me for our first anniversary (we’d only had two in all) . . . but in the safe deposit box was the diamond necklace I’d given her, and about thirty thousand dollars’ worth of negotiable securities. The key was at our little summer cabin in the Adirondacks, I realized. Not on purpose, but out of simple forgetfulness. I’d left it on top of the bureau, pushed way back amid the dust and the mouse turds.

  Pain in my left hand. I looked down and my hand rolled into a right fist, and rolled it open. The nails had cut crescents in the pad of the palm.

  ‘Steve?’ Humboldt was purring. ‘Steve, are you there?’

  ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I’ve got two things for you. Are you ready?’

  ‘Of course,’ he said in that parry little voice, and for a moment I had a bizarre vision: William Humboldt blasting through the desert on a Harley-Davidson, surrounded by a pack of Hell’s Angels. On the back of his leather jacket: BORN TO COMFORT.

  Pain in my left hand again. It had closed up again on its own, just liken clam. This time when I unrolled it, two of the four little crescents were oozing blood.

  ‘First,’ I said, ‘that box is going to stay closed unless some divorce court judge orders it opened in the presence of Diane’s attorney and mine. In the meantime, no one is going to loot it, and that’s a promise. Not me, not her.’ I paused. ‘Not you, either.’

  ‘I think that your hostile attitude is counterproductive,’ he said. ‘And if you examine your last few statements, Steve, you may begin to understand why your wife is so emotionally shattered, so—‘

  ‘Second,’ I overrode him (it’s something we hostile people are good at), ‘I find you calling me by my first name patronizing and insensitive. Do it again on the phone and I’ll hang up on you. Do it to my face and you’ll find out just how hostile my attitude can be.’

  ‘Steve.. . Mr Davis . . . I hardly think—‘

  I hung up on him. It was the first thing I’d done that gave me any pleasure since finding that note on the dining room table, with her three apartment keys on top of it to hold it down.

  That afternoon I talked to a friend in the legal department, and he recommended a friend of his who did divorce work. I didn’t want a divorce - I was furious at her, but had not the slightest question that I still loved her and wanted her back - but I didn’t like Humboldt. I didn’t like the idea of Humboldt. He made me nervous, him and his purry little voice. I think I would have preferred some hardball shyster who would have called up and said, You give us a copy of that lockbox key before the close of business today, Davis, and maybe m
y client will relent and decide to leave you with some-thing besides two pairs of underwear and your blood donor’s card- got it?

  That I could have understood. Humboldt, on the other hand, felt sneaky.

  The divorce lawyer was John Ring, and he listened patiently to my tale of woe. I suspect he’d heard most of it before.

  ‘If I was entirely sure she wanted a divorce, I think I’d be easier in my mind,’ I finished.

  ‘Be entirely sure,’ Ring said at once. ‘Humboldt’s a stalking horse, Mr Davis . . . and a potentially damaging witness if this drifts into court. I have no doubt that your wife went to a lawyer first, and when the lawyer found out about the missing lockbox key, he suggested Humboldt. A lawyer couldn’t go right to you; that would be unethical. Come across with that key, my friend, and Humboldt will disappear from the picture. Count on it.’

  Most of this went right past me. I was concentrating on what he’d said first.

  ‘You think she wants a divorce,’ I said.

  ‘Oh, yes,’ he replied. ‘She wants a divorce. Indeed she does. And she doesn’t intend to walk away from the marriage empty-handed.’

  I made an appointment with Ring to sit down and discuss things further the following day. I went home from the office as late as I could, walked back and forth through the apartment for a while, decided to go out to a movie, couldn’t find anything I wanted to see, tried the television, couldn’t find anything there to look at, either, and did some more walking. And at some point I found myself in the bedroom, standing in front of an open window fourteen floors above the street and chucking out all my cigarettes, even the stale old pack of Viceroys from the very back of my top desk drawer, a pack that had probably been there for ten years or more - since before I had any idea there was such a creature as Diane Coslaw in the world, in other words.

  Although I’d been smoking between twenty and forty cigarettes a day for twenty years, I don’t remember any sudden decision to quit, or any dissenting interior opinions - not even a mental suggestion that maybe two days after your wife walks out is not the optimum time to quit smoking. I just stuffed the full carton, the half carton, and the two or three half-used packs I found lying around out the window and into the dark. Then I shut the window (it never once crossed my mind that it might have been more efficient to throw the user out instead of the product; it was never that kind of situation), lay down on my bed, and closed my eyes.

  The next ten days - the time during which I was going through the worst of the physical withdrawal from nicotine - were difficult and often unpleasant, but perhaps not as bad as I had thought they would be. And although I was on the verge of smoking dozens - no, hundreds - of times, I never did. There were moments when I thought I would go insane if I didn’t have a cigarette, and when I passed people on the street who were smoking I felt like screaming Give that to me, motherfucher, that’s mine!, but I didn’t.

  For me the worst times were late at night. I think (but I’m not sure; all my thought processes from around the time Diane left are very blurry in my mind) I had an idea that I would sleep better if I quit, but I didn’t. I lay awake some mornings until three, hands laced together under my pillow, looking up at the ceiling, listening to sirens and to the rumble of trucks headed downtown.

  At those times I would think about the twenty-four-hour Korean market almost directly across the street from my building. I would think about the white fluorescent light inside, so bright it was almost like a Kubler-Ross near-death experience, and how it spilled out onto the sidewalk between the displays which, in another hour, two young Korean men in white paper hats would begin to fill with fruit. I would think about the older man behind the counter, also Korean, also in a paper hat, and the formidable racks of cigarettes behind him, as big as the stone tablets Charlton

  Heston had brought down from Mount Sinai in The Ten Commandments. I would think about getting up, dressing, going over there, getting a pack of cigarettes (or maybe nine or ten of them), and sitting by the window, smoking one Marlboro after another as the sky lightened to the east and the sun came up. I never did, but on many early mornings I went to sleep counting cigarette brands instead of sheep: Winston.. . Winston 100s.. . Virginia Slims . . . Doral . . . Merit . . . Merit 100s . . . Camels . . . Camel Filters . . . Camel Lights.

  Later - around the time I was starting to see the last three or four months of our marriage in a clearer light, as a matter of fact I began to understand that my decision to quit smoking when I had was perhaps not so unconsidered as it at first seemed, and a very long way from ill-considered. I’m not a brilliant man, not a brave one, either, but that decision might have been both. It’s certainly possible; sometimes we rise above ourselves. In any case, it gave my mind something concrete to pitch upon in the days after Diane left; it gave my misery a vocabulary it would not otherwise have had, if you see what I mean. Very likely you don’t, but I can’t think of any other way to put it.

  Have I speculated that quitting when I did may have played a part in what happened at the Gotham Cafe that day? Of course I have. . . but I haven’t lost any sleep over it. None of us can predict the final outcomes of our actions, after all, and few even try; most of us just do what we do to prolong a moment’s pleasure or to stop the pain for a while. And even when we act for the noblest reasons, the last link of the chain all too often drips with someone’s blood.

  Humboldt called me again two weeks after the evening when I’d bombed West 83rd Street with my cigarettes, and this time he stuck with Mr Davis as a form of address. He asked me how I was doing, and I cold him I was doing fine. With that amenity our of the way, he told me that he had called on Diane’s behalf. Diane, he said, wanted to sit down with me and discuss ‘certain aspects' of the marriage- I suspected that ‘certain aspects’ meant the key to the safe deposit box - not to mention various other financial issues Diane might want to investigate before hauling her lawyer onstage - but what my head knew and what my body was doing were completely different things. I could feel my skin flush and my heart speed up; I could feel a pulse tapping away in the wrist of the hand holding the phone. You have to remember that I hadn’t seen her since the morning of the day she’d left, and even then I hadn’t really seen her; she’d been sleeping with her face buried in her pillow.

  Still I retained enough sense to ask him just what aspects we were talking about here.

  Humboldt chuckled fatly in my ear and said he would rather save that for our actual meeting.

  ‘Are you sure this is a good idea?’ I asked. As a question, it was nothing but a time-buyer- I knew it wasn’t a good idea. I also knew I was going to do it. I wanted to see her again. Felt I had to see her again.

  ‘Oh, yes, I think so.’ At once, no hesitation. Any question that Humboldt and Diane had worked this out very carefully between them (and yes, very likely with a lawyer’s advice) evaporated. ‘It’s always best to let some time pass before bringing the principals together, a little cooling-off period, but in my judgment a face-to-face meeting at this time would facilitate—‘

  ‘Let me get this straight,’ I said. ‘You’re talking about—‘

  ‘Lunch,’ he said. ‘The day after tomorrow? Can you clear that on your schedule?’ Of course you can, his voice said. Just to see her again … to experience the slightest touch of her hand. Eh, Steve?

  ‘I don’t have anything on for lunch Thursday anyhow, so that’s not a problem. And I should bring my . . . my own therapist?’

  The fat chuckle came again, shivering in my ear like something just turned out of a Jell-O mold. ‘Do you have one, Mr Davis?’

  ‘No, actually, I don’t. Did you have a place in mind?’ I .wondered for a moment who would be paying for this lunch, and then had to smile at my own naivete. I reached into my pocket for a cigarette and poked the rip of a toothpick under my thumb-nail instead. I winced, brought the pick out, checked the tip for blood, saw none, and stuck it in my mouth.

  Humboldt had said something, but I had missed it. The s
ight of the toothpick had reminded me all over again that I was floating cigaretteless on the waves of the world. ‘Pardon me?’

  ‘I asked if you know the Gotham Card on 53rd Street,’ he said, sounding a touch impatient now. ‘Between Madison and Park.’

  ‘No, but I’m sure I can find it.’


  I thought of telling him to tell Diane to wear the green dress with the little black speckles and the deep slit up the side, then decided that would probably be counterproductive- ‘Noon will be fine,’ I said.

  We said the things that you say when you’re ending a conversation with someone you already don’t like but have to deal with.

  When it was over, I settled back in front of my computer terminal and wondered how I was possibly going to be able to meet Diane again without at least one cigarette beforehand.

  It wasn’t fine with John Ring, none of it.

  ‘He’s setting you up,’ he said. ‘They both are. Under this arrangement, Diane’s lawyer is there by remote control and I’m not in the picture at all. It stinks.’

  Maybe, but you never had her stick her tongue in your month when she feels you start to come, I thought. But since that wasn’t the sort of thing you could say to a lawyer you’d just hired, I only told him I wanted to see her again, see if there was a chance to salvage things.

  He sighed.

  ‘Don’t be a putz. You see him at this restaurant, you see her, you break bread, you drink a little wine, she crosses her legs, you look, you talk nice, she crosses her legs again, you look some more, maybe they talk you into a duplicate of the safe deposit key—‘

  ‘They won’t.’

  ‘—and the next time you see them, you’ll see them in court, and everything damaging you said while you were looking at her legs and thinking about how it was to have them wrapped around you will turn up on the record. And you’re apt to say a lot of damaging stuff, because they’ll come primed with all the right questions. I understand that you want to see her, I’m not insensitive to these things, but this is not the way. You’re nor Donald Trump and she’s nor Ivana, burt this isn’t a no-faulter we got here, either, buddy, and Humboldt knows it. Diane does, too.’